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Look Around – Yet Another Piece about “Don’t Look Up”

Truly, I live in the dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth
Suggests insensitivity. The man who
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

– Brecht

There is a joke that every disaster movie begins with a scientist being ignored.

In fairness, it is an exaggeration to say that literally every disaster movie begins that way, but it is certainly a recognizable trope of the genre. As for that matter are the beats that follow the scientist being ignored: the potential disaster eventually becomes impossible to ignore, politicians and media personalities are shown scrambling, the hefty special effects budget is used to provide unsettling imagery of heavily populated areas (and recognizable landmarks) being destroyed, and the film concludes with the survivors (which may include the original scientist(s) whose warnings were ignored) looking at the ruins with a steely determination to rebuild. Of course, lots can vary in this formula: the type of disaster, the level of zaniness of the scientist, the cravenness of the politicians, whether or not the scientist is enlisted in the last ditch effort to prevent the catastrophe, the scale of the destruction, etc. Nevertheless, to bring it back to the joke, the story usually starts with powerful eyes being rolled at a scientist’s warning.

Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up is an entire movie built around scientists being ignored, and the desperate attempts by those scientists to convey their warning to leaders (and a public) that turn out to just not be particularly that interested in listening. The “up” of the film’s title refers to a doomsday comet heading straight for planet Earth, and “don’t look up” is a slogan that is adopted by a faction of characters in the film who are committed to believing that there’s nothing to worry about—even as another faction (featuring the scientists) pleads with people to “look up.” And, as with every disaster film, the great source of tension is whether or not enough will be done in time to prevent a total catastrophe. Though the film is ostensibly about a comet, McKay has made it clear that the comet is a stand-in for climate change (though it is quite tempting to also see the film as an allegory for the pandemic). Overflowing with indignation, Don’t Look Up directs ample scorn towards politicians who refuse to act, media figures who would rather cover insipid gossip, scientists who are eager to put their principles aside, tech-moguls only concerned with their own profits, and the film is not particularly forgiving towards the “regular” folks who have been hoodwinked. Yes, many disaster movies begin with scientists being ignored, but Don’t Look Up is less interested in the impending disaster than it is with the groups ignoring that looming threat. If the goal of Don’t Look Up was to spark several rounds of commentary about climate change, the film has already been a success; however, if the goal of Don’t Look Up is to actually drive the changes needed to avert climate change, it is still much too early to gauge its impact.

Don’t Look Up is an apocalyptic Rorschach test: what viewers see in it says more about them than it really says about the actual film. Of course, the film’s scathing caricatures are hardly subtle, and the “we should listen to the scientists” moral of the story is clear, but how people react to those caricatures and that moral can still vary considerably—as is made clear by the avalanche of commentary the film has inspired. For some, the film is a paean to science that perfectly captures the frustration of those who have been trying to sound the alarm on climate change. For others, the film represents the bind climate discourse has found itself in where the complexities of a slow disaster are displaced in favor of talking about impending doom—after all, climate change and a comet are not really the same thing. To some, the film’s heavy focus on the US demonstrates the continued inability to think globally (especially considering that climate change’s impacts are not evenly distributed around the planet). To others, the film is itself an indictment of Hollywood’s liberalism as well as a portrait of American decadence and decline. And while arguments can (and have) been made to support all of those positions (as well as many others), they tend not to dwell on the aspect of Don’t Look Up that most differentiates it from standard disaster movies, namely: the film’s ending.

[Warning: spoilers ahead]

The film begins with PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovering a comet, and her advisor Randall Mindy (Leonardo Di Caprio) realizing the comet’s trajectory means it will strike the Earth in about six months. From this initial discovery comes a flurry of activity that sees Dibiasky and Mindy trying to follow proper scientific protocol—alerting NASA and Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) at the Planetary Defense Coordination Office—then seeking an audience with President Orlean (Meryl Streep), then going to the press when the President isn’t interested, only to find their stark warning either ignored or turned into a Chicken Little style meme. When President Orlean comes around to the seriousness of the threat it has less to do with the actual threat, and more to do with seeing the comet as a political opportunity. Alas, President Orlean abandons the effort to use nuclear missiles to divert the comet when the tech-mogul Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) claims he has the technology to capture the comet and safely mine the mineral riches it contains. A national rift opens up between those who believe the comet will bring jobs and wealth, those who think the comet must be deflected, and a third contingent refuses to believe the comet even exists. Though Mindy initially takes on a role as a scientific advisor to Orlean (as the handsome scientific face of the project), eventually he snaps and denounces Orlean and Isherwell’s plan—for which he is pushed to the side. After initial months in which the comet remained distant, it eventually becomes visible to the naked eye. Thus some call for others to “look up,” while President Orlean and her partisans urge “don’t look up.” Having been cut out of a share in the comet’s riches, another effort to deflect the comet is launched by China, India, and Russia—but when this fails all remaining hope rests on Isherwell’s high-tech plan. And though many of Isherwell’s impressive drone spaceships land on the comet, they ultimately do not succeed. The film concludes with the comet making impact, snuffing out human life on Earth, even as a spaceship filled with the rich and powerful (including President Orlean and Isherwell) departs for a distant habitable planet (that proves to not really be habitable).

The film begins with scientists being ignored, and ends with those scientists enjoying a convivial, if somber, last meal together before the comet’s shockwave annihilates humanity—the scientists included.

Though Don’t Look Up features plenty of jokes, the film is not a comedy, it is a tragedy. Which is particularly significant because most disasters films feature plenty of horrid destruction in order to make it seem as though they are tragedies when they are actually comedies. This distinction between tragedy and comedy is best captured by Italo Calvino in his book If on a winter’s night a traveler when a character comments:

“Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end? In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and the heroine married, or else they died. The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”

Or, to put it plainly: in a comedy the heroes fall in love, in a tragedy the heroes do not survive. Taken in this spirit, most disaster movies are comedies: the heroes live, the family is restored, life continues. Certainly, there are some disaster movies in which the square-jawed hero bravely sacrifices their own life in order to save humanity, but the point of such a death is that it is done in service of the broader “continuity of life.” Similarly, for all the depressingly bleak elements of the post-apocalyptic genre, many of those works still fit within comedy’s “continuity of life.” After all, what greater endorsement of “the continuity of life” is there than showing the stubborn struggle to rebuild atop the ruins?

There is something amusingly ironic about the way that Don’t Look Up uses humorous techniques for an ultimately tragic message, and in doing so the film is comparable to a truly phenomenal tragedy hiding behind the façade of a comedy: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The most obvious similarity between Don’t Look Up and Dr. Strangelove is that they both end with the end, not in terms of a title card on the screen that announces in looping script “the end” but in terms of a truly life extinguishing conclusion. Dr. Strangelove and Don’t Look Up are about the respective apocalypses of their days (nuclear war in the former case, climate change in the latter case), but both films offer up a tragic assessment of human frailty. Though their narratives feature many signs of human power as is evidenced in impressive techno-scientific achievements, the hubris embodied in that machinery is part of what damns humanity. Granted, part of what makes Dr. Strangelove succeed is that the looming threat in the film, and the real world looming threat about which it was commenting, were the same (nuclear war), which allowed the film to directly skewer the absurdity of the situation. Unfortunately, as a stand in for climate change, Don’t Look Up’s planet destroying comet does not quite succeed in delivering a direct hit because there really are significant differences between a doomsday comet and climate change. Nevertheless, though played for laughs, the doomsdays with which Dr. Strangelove and Don’t Look Up conclude are not simply punchlines, they are deathly cold retorts to standard Hollywood narratives that always conclude with “the continuity of life.”

In contrast to films that end with survivors preparing to rebuild, Don’t Look Up ends with annihilation—and even the rich who escape to a different planet are shown being eaten by alien dinosaurs upon emerging naked from their space ark. Insofar as Don’t Look Up has any heroes, that role is filled by the scientists Dibiasky, Mindy, and Oglethorpe—and yet the heroes cannot bravely martyr themselves so that the species survives, their valiant efforts do not save humanity, they try but cannot ultimately succeed at the “tests” before them, and so they die just like everyone else. As the film ends, Mindy rejoins his family, and Dibiasky seems to be starting a romance with the quasi-Christian-crust-punk Yule (Timothée Chalamet), but this return to familial units (and the creation of new ones) only serves to further capture the triumph of inevitable death. It is not that the scientists did not try to save the day, most of the films laughs come from them trying very hard to do just that, but despite all of their efforts it just is not enough. In the classic work Shakespearean Tragedy, A.C. Bradley characterizes tragedy as being defined by “the waste of good” and “the impression of waste,” and both of those are sentiments that seem perfectly captured in Mindy’s final line: “We really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean when you think about it.” It is a line spoken shortly before the house they sit in begins to shake—as Simone Weil observed in commenting on The Iliad, “the heroes quake like everybody else.”

Of course, to be reassured of “the continuity of life” is calming and pleasant, to be reminded of “the inevitability of death” is distressing. Which is part of the reason why so many people prefer to ignore death as best they can. Some of the best current evidence of this comes not from climate change but from the ongoing pandemic that has claimed more than 5.5 million lives, with 840,000 of these deaths occurring just in the US (and by the time you read this those figures have only increased). Since August 2021, in the US, more than 1,000 people have died from the virus every single day—and at the time of this writing the number of daily deaths is once again rising. These deaths do not get particularly much coverage. Where early in the pandemic the US reaching 1,000 deaths was a cause for alarm, and where The New York Times called 100,000 deaths an “incalculable loss,” by the time the US passed 800,000 deaths it was largely met with a shrug. Mass death quickly becomes mundane, people get inured to it. It is easy to imagine a threat being so catastrophically mismanaged that it snuffs out all of human life while living in the midst of an ongoing catastrophically mismanaged disaster that is continuously killing people. The comet in Don’t Look Up is meant to represent climate change, but the pandemic has served to create a general climate of despair in which the fatalism of Don’t Look Up more readily resonates amongst a populace that increasingly does not believe that their society can still muster the necessary will to avert catastrophe.

While death lurks always in the background in discussions of the pandemic, the matter of death remains a thorny issue to talk about when it comes to climate change. A doomsday comet that strikes the Earth brings with it nearly simultaneous death to all, but the death and destruction wrought by climate change simply does not occur in such a clear and equitable way. A massive comet is a single disaster, but climate change represents a complex network of disasters displaced over time and space that occur with varying levels of rapidity and which devastate certain parts of the world while leaving other regions relatively fine. In the face of an oncoming comet it might be fair to say “we’re all going to die,” but to say “we’re all going to die” in terms of climate change is only fair insofar as we are all mortal. This is not meant to minimize climate change, or the deaths from climate change, it is just to point out that climate change does not represent the same simple “game over” that a comet represents. Don’t Look Up posits a situation in which there are six months left before life is eradicated, but climate change does not feature a similarly certain countdown clock. A comet represents the end of the world (full stop), climate change (and the pandemic) represent the end of the world as we know it. And in many ways it is easy to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of the world as we know it—after all, if the world ends we will no longer be around to have to figure out what to do, the end of the world as we know it, on the other hand, keeps us around but sets us dangerously adrift. The climate disruptions we have already seen are terrible, the disruptions we are likely to see in the coming years will be even worse, but the challenge posed by climate change (and the pandemic) is how to find the spirit to fight for “the continuity of life” in the midst of so much that seems to clearly demonstrate “the inevitability of death.”

Considering the fatalistic bent of Don’t Look Up it is somewhat surprising how the film has been embraced and elevated by many prominent climate communicators. After all, Don’t Look Up seems to commit many of the sins that climate communicators are routinely criticizing in other people: the film is extremely focused on the US (as if only the US can avert the catastrophe), the film places little stock in the activism of normal people, the film focuses too much on individual villains instead of the broader forces they represent, the film flattens out differences between political parties, the film fails to provide clear “what you can do” action steps, and the film treats the catastrophe as an all-or-nothing “game over” type calamity whereas climate communicators have repeatedly emphasized that climate change is much more complicated. Yet it is particularly odd that those who spend so much time inveighing against the scourge of “doomerism” should embrace the film, seeing as the movie seems to relish in the sort of misanthropic apocalypticism that climate communicators often warn against. Insofar as the stereotypical “doomer” position can be described as “not enough will be done in time to avert the catastrophe,” Don’t Look Up seems to be far glossier and wider reaching propaganda for that bleak position than any zine nestled in the magazine rack at an anarchist bookstore.

In fairness, the message of Don’t Look Up’s isn’t really “give up,” but is instead “listen to the scientists,” with the film’s doomsday conclusion being a result of those scientists being ignored; and yet the film is also unsparing in presenting a society that has pretty much lost the ability to “listen to the scientists.” It is not particularly surprising that, for all its flaws, a movie with the message “listen to the scientists” would be embraced by so many climate scientists who feel that they are not being listened to, but Don’t Look Up is not really a love letter to science or scientists. The scientists in Don’t Look Up are not perfect paragons of virtue, they are flawed humans struggling against (and submitting to) social forces that are beyond their control. As befits characters in a tragedy, for all of their greatness and admirable attributes, they are ultimately unable to overcome the larger forces in which they are enmeshed, and so they fall. Certainly, it is fair to argue, that by portraying the worst case scenario Don’t Look Up is hoping to inspire a contrary response—by saying “see how bad it could be” the film attempts to frighten viewers into ensuring that situation will not come to pass, by showing scientists being ignored it hopes to push the audience to pay greater heed to scientific warnings. And while one can certainly project optimistic undercurrents onto the film, by the time a star-studded movie comes out begging people to “listen to the scientists” it’s pretty clear that something has already gone very wrong.

Don’t Look Up is a film that is filled with highly intelligent characters: Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) may be the co-host of a tawdry show but she tells Mindy of all the degrees she holds and languages she speaks, Isherwell (and those who work for him) clearly possesses the knowhow to create impressive technology, President Orlean is obviously a clever politician, and of course Dibiasky, Mindy, and Oglethorpe are genuine scientists. Indeed, the film has plenty of highly intelligent characters, most of whom seem quite confident that by applying their intelligence the day will be saved. Their intelligence is foregrounded, but as the film’s conclusion makes clear, none of them are particularly wise. Oddly, the voice of wisdom in the film seems to come from Yule (Timothée Chalamet), the skateboarding societal dropout who has found his own iconoclastic relationship to faith, of all the characters he seems most at ease living in the moment in a world so already fallen that it falling the last few inches hardly seems like much of a surprise. It is not that Yule is oblivious to what’s going on, or that he is in denial of it, but that he seems to accept what is happening. Yule is not one of the scientists or powerful figures in the film, and yet he is one of the film’s primary proponents of life. Dibiasky meets Yule after she has been banished from the scientific milieu, and his invitation to her (to come party) pulls Dibiasky out from behind the register to which she has been consigned (and to which she seems resigned). And driving towards the final family dinner of the film, Yule proposes to Dibiasky (even with certain death coming in only a matter of hours) in a small gesture of the defiance of life in the face of doom.

Don’t Look Up heaps scorn and mockery on most characters, and the film is not particularly kind to its scientist heroes, and yet Yule is portrayed surprisingly sympathetically. Sure, he’s a bit oddly dressed, but his earnestness is not doubted, his interest in and care for Dibiasky are portrayed as sincere, and though Orlean’s appeals to religion are lambasted, Yule’s personal faith is not treated as something to be mocked. Amidst ridiculous politicians, silly media figures, scientists who can’t get their message across, tech moguls with savior complexes, and a public of easily duped rubes—Yule stands out precisely because he is not a crude caricature. Don’t Look Up is not a subtle film, and yet amidst all the hyperbolic yelling, Yule is a nuanced character. With Yule the filmmakers actually seemed to be trying to think of what it might mean to find meaning not in the catastrophe, but beneath the shadow of that catastrophe. And while it does not exactly seem that Yule is meant to be a stand-in for the filmmakers themselves, his character seems to gesture in a direction that has “looked up” and seen something more in the sky than just an approaching comet. Thus, Yule not only stands out in Don’t Look Up but also stands out compared to the sort of stock characters that populate standard disaster movies. In truth, Yule’s character seems to be smuggled in from the more thoughtful ruminations on living amidst catastrophe that can be found in films like First United, Melancholia, Take Shelter, and Nomadland. While everyone else is panicking, Yule seems at peace, not because he refuses to acknowledge what is coming, but because he knows what is coming and is still living. Don’t Look Up is filled with characters who seemed to think everything was fine until the comet was discovered, but Yule seems to have been already living in a world gone wrong. Yule seems to have accepted “the inevitability of death,” yet in the face of this he does not commit to some farsighted plan for “the continuity of life,” nor to a hermetic eagerness for oblivion, but rather to an understated recognition that “the continuity of life” is as much about what is done today as it is about making plans for tomorrow.

Don’t Look Up is an apocalyptic Rorschach test. What you see in it is likely more a reflection of you than it is an actual comment on the film. And, lest there be any doubt, the same can certainly be said of this (lengthy and rambling) piece. That being said, part of what makes the film genuinely interesting  is precisely the way that Don’t Look Up serves as a coatrack onto which viewers place their own hats and hang ups. It remains far too early to be able to say whether or not Don’t Look Up will have any meaningful impact on our current climate trajectory, but it is already clear that the film has shaken things up in terms of the discourse around climate change. Though it would be a shame if the film is used solely to justify pre-existing sentiments, when the tragic elements of the film provide an occasion for the sort of introspection that most characters in the film seem incapable of doing.

There are certainly some voices out there that think that climate change is all about “the inevitability of death,” and there are certainly others who think that climate change is all about “the continuity of life.” But at its best Don’t Look Up asks us to consider what it means to live, to really live, to still live, with the weight of impending calamity bearing down upon us.

That is not a laughing matter, and so you have to laugh at it.

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “Look Around – Yet Another Piece about “Don’t Look Up”

  1. Pingback: “I’m so sick of Y2K!” – A review of Y2K: The Movie | LibrarianShipwreck

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